The Viet Nam Memorial: A Reply from the Living Dead

To be a Viet Nam veteran is, as Russell Hittinger’s recent article on these pages (January 1984) shows, never to stop learning the depths of one’s capacity for humiliation. First it was service in the war; young men shouted “murderer” at me when I walked in uniform on city streets. Today, young men call the Memorial to that war a “monument to the living dead.” To so many who did not go, nothing, absolutely nothing, connected with that war is permitted to be sacred.

The degradation never stopped. When three years after I was commissioned, I went on active duty, people would turn away from me at parties and refuse to speak or shake my hand; others were not so polite. When I returned from Viet Nam, the really moral people, I learned, had stayed at home and were running for office. No one wanted to hear from us; there, was not much we could add to what they had seen on television, was there? Now I like to visit the Viet Nam Monument; the people who knew so much about the war are dumbfounded before those black stone slabs.

I had lived with the Vietnamese and had worked and ate and danced with them. But I had come after Tet, and everyone knew that it was only a matter of time until the Americans would leave. We all knew what would come after. We had looked down the well in which forty children at the orphanage had been thrown after being mutilated and shot. They had not been raped or abused by the VC, but simply tortured and executed by them for treason and conspiracy; for they saw the children as the most dangerous of all. On Christmas Day 1969, I spent the afternoon pulling a swollen, bloated corpse out of the river, the victim of a VC assassination squad of seven year olds. We knew what was coming. Every day’s monsoon winds brought fresh gusts from the Gulag.

It is so strange how truth can be so close to us, and yet escape our notice or elude our grasp. Mr. Hittinger’s reflections on the Viet Nam Memorial catch its essence, and in a strange way, even more unknown to him, also catch its significance.

Mr. Hittinger does not like the Viet Nam Memorial because of its “brutally literal perspective” on the Viet Nam War. He is upset that the Memorial does not “mediate or edify, but rather confronts one with the brute literality of the ‘fact.’” Mr. Hittinger observes that the “Viet Nam Memorial is not a memorial to the dead, but to the living dead, since to live without transcendence, to ritualize the brute ‘fact’ is a living death.” Thus, Mr. Hittinger concludes that if he ever has a son he “will not take him to this Memorial.”

Mr. Hittinger is awfully right about the Memorial. The damned thing does not mediate or edify. The fact is, the brute, literal fact is, that nothing which is touched by the Gulag can ever mediate or edify. To have been touched by the air of the Gulag is to know shame at one’s humanity and the dark swallowing up of a “ravenous grave.” To come anywhere near it is to be touched by a filth that can be washed away only by unspeakable pain. One saw the whole people at sea before they took to their boats.

Mr. Hittinger is right that the Viet Nam Memorial “is not a memorial, but a literal remembering.” It is not, however, a literal remembering, as Mr. Hittinger says, of “the psychology and sociology of the war.” Only those who saw the war through a tube speak of its “psychology and sociology.” Rather, the stark, literal remembering to which this memorial stands is something so much more unedifying. One cannot be edified pulling shrapnel splinters out of a child’s skin. One cannot be edified by the bleeding stump of the leg of the old man who walked his rice paddy dikes once too regularly. It is the “literal remembering” of holding his arms and shoulders during field surgery.

It is not that children never suffered in wars before nor that old men never before died so cruelly. In this war, rather, it was the muteness, the paralysis, before a relentless, ravaging evil that was engulfing the dreams of the world. Evil seized our images and enmeshed us in them; evil seized the words in our throats and strangled them; evil grasped our victories and turned them to defeats; evil took hold of our ideals and made them dung. What could we say that had not been corrupted? What could we do that would not be corrupted? Everything we knew was sucked into the vortex of meaninglessness. We saw men die for — Nothing. The gods had fled and in their place there was — Nothing.

Mr. Hittinger is right to vow to keep his son away from that monument. The Memorial is a gash dug into the ground, which, like Anfortas’ wound, will fester forever and never heal. We fought to keep the stench of the Gulag far away. But it came back in the black bags in which every one of our dead was wrapped until the nation could stand it no longer.

The black bag, and the black slab, are our symbols. We knew from the start that our dead could not be left to be buried within sight of the Gulag, or in a land which would ever be a part of the Gulag. We could not hallow a land of Gulags. So we made a fetish of returning every body. No Flanders Fields, no Gettysburgs, in Viet Nam. Our bodies consecrated nothing there. How can anyone ever mention, let alone explain, the empty feeling of a war without graves? We were not to be buried where we fell. We were shipped home and — Nothing remained. Somehow, the folks back home expected the Vietnamese not to notice.

Mr. Hittinger can see that the Viet Nam Memorial is different from all our other war memorials, but he laments that he cannot see an “other” in it. We need, he says a “symbolism to mediate our relationship to the ‘other’ “. All other memorials, he says, confront the observer; at the Viet ‘Nam Memorial, “we as individuals confront ourselves.” It has always been the most strange product of this war that in its very otherness those who were not there can see no “other.”

We wondered about that “other” for which these deaths were asked. “Only because of this wonder,” the philosopher once wrote, “that is to say, the revelation of Nothing, does the why spring to our lips.”‘ And the “Why?” sprang to our lips. It screeched, it sobbed, it silently scorched the throat: “Why is there this death for Nothing?”

We knew but dimly why. We saw in mute paralysis the horrible, awful, incredible approach of an “other” that could turn everything into Nothing. The Gulag was nigh. Half a world away Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in those same years writing the truth on which we were choking:

“The Archipelago was,

The Archipelago remains,

The Archipelago will stand forever!”

What silenced us? What held us back? What tied us down? What paralyzed us? An unspeakable “Other,” a nameless Nothing. Before us was an enemy who insisted, “Nothing will stop us.” Behind us a world clamored, “You are fighting for nothing.” That is why, Mr. Hittinger, there was no transcendence in Viet Nam. Men died fighting over two different ideas of — Nothing.

But civilization is based on this dispute over “nothing.” A great doctor of the Church, St. Anselm had written nine centuries ago: “But here we are again confronted by the term nothing, and whatever our reasoning thus far, with the concordant attestation of truth and necessity, has concluded nothing to be.” And in response he formulated the position which we are still trying to bring ourselves to face: “But rather ought this nothing to be resisted,” he wrote, “lest so many structures . . . be stormed by nothing and the supreme good which has been sought by the light of truth, be lost for nothing?” (The emphasis is Anselm’s.)

Mr. Hittinger is a doctoral candidate in philosophy, and so he will know what I mean when I say that in Viet Nam we saw the approach of the World Night. We saw the indescribable approach, and were left only with the reality a more recent philosopher had described: “Not only does protection now withhold itself from man, but the integralness of the whole of what is remains now in darkness. The wholesome and sound withdraws. The world becomes without healing, unholy . . . even the track to the holy, the hale and the whole, seems to be effaced.”

To have witnessed that departure of the holy, the hale and the whole is what the Viet Nam experience was about. It is: Apocalypse Now. Everywhere in that war the supreme good, the Creator, was absent. It is the same at its Memorial. The Nothing there invites one, against one’s will, to linger. One protests the absence, as Mr. Hittinger does in his article, fearfully, hopefully; for the eruption of creation always takes place — ex nihilo.

The Viet Nam Memorial is in its essence and its significance the place of the “Other” in our midst. That is why as Mr. Hittinger notes, “The ordinary citizen is an alien at this Memorial.” Men are not moved by it; on the contrary, they are emptied by it. Not movement, but emptiness is the root of the mystical experience, from Eckhardt to St. John of the Cross. For it is this “Nothing, conceived of as the pure `Other’ “, which is, as the philosopher says, “the veil of Being.”

The Viet Nam Memorial is the perfect expression of what we as a nation have been through and are facing. The only things worth living for are the things worth dying for. We in America believe that we have so much for which to live. It is the privilege of this Memorial to embody the supreme paradox of our Nation: that all the things we have are as nothing in the absence of something for which to die. That is the void in our midst to which the Viet Nam Memorial calls. It is an “other” more important than everything there is. The Viet Nam Memorial is nothing, but our destiny.

The Viet Nam Memorial consists of black stone tables set in a pit beneath the sight of men. The humiliation is complete. The Memorial is perfect. There are their names. They are the last. Who would presume to sit above them?

  • Benjamin Novak

    Ben Novak graduated from Georgetown University in 1968. From 1968 to 1970 he served as a Captain in the U.S. Army, Infantry, including a year in Viet Nam where he won the Bronze Star. He practiced law in Pennsylvania for thirty years, and now advises students at Penn State.

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